The Washington Spirit face Utah Royals FC tonight, and the two teams are in very different places from their last meeting (a 2-0 Spirit victory back in June). Since then, the Spirit have won just once, suffering numerous tough one-goal losses. Utah, meanwhile, has won three straight, moving up into the final NWSL playoff spot over the weekend.
To get the scoop on what’s going on with Royals FC, we traded questions with Lucas Muller from RSL Soapbox:
Black and Red United: After a six-week span in which nothing quite worked for Utah, they’ve suddenly won three straight (including two on the road). What has changed?
A number of things have happened all at once to cause the Royals surge in form. The first and most clear is the return of the national team players. The re-addition of Becky Sauerbrunn to the backline cannot be understated in importance to the team’s defensive success. The way she both plays and commands the defensive is what built Utah’s reputation as a strong defensive squad. The next is Christen Press. Press played far fewer minutes than many of her USWNT teammates and has come back into the NWSL in full force – when many, such as Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, are injured. She’s had a goal or assist in all but one URFC game she’s played in.
The third change is Gunny Jonsdottir finally getting some rest. Gunny had played every single minute in club history until a month or two ago. Head coach Laura Harvey has been using her as a sub in the last three games and it’s helped the team. Gunny is a solid player, but that many full 90s plus having played in the W League in the offseason is a tough grind. Lo LaBonta has been incredible in the last several games and she’s upped her level of play so much that she’s been the 2nd or 3rd best player on the team behind Sauerbrunn and Press.
It seems like every week that she’s been available, we’ve seen Christen Press produce some kind of game-changing moment. Obviously she’s a great player, so the question the Spirit are asking is probably this: What teams have managed to have any success slowing her down? How did they go about doing it?
There is no way to stop Christen Press and any attempt to do so is an exercise in futility. Ok, that’s not true, but her speed and ability to create something out of nothing has been truly impressive this season. In order to shut down Press, defenders need to be able to keep up with her. We’ve seen several goals result in her attacking down the left, megging a defender, and either shooting or crossing. She’s been excellent at getting opposition defenders on their back heels. The must effective thing I’ve seen is when teams don’t allow her to get on the ball at all. This often takes one or two players away from the rest of the team, but if they can cut out passes to her, then it keeps her out of the game entirely.
It seems like Laura Harvey is going to have to strike a balance between two facts: Royals FC are on a roll, but her team just played on Sunday. On what looks like it’ll be a muggy night at the Plex, do you think we’ll see a rotated lineup? If so, who would you expect to get a rest?
We’ve seen the same exact starting XI in the Royals last three games, which happens to be the three games they’ve won. If it was a midweek then weekend game, I’d think we see some change, but with the international break coming up the Royals don’t have another game until September 6th. It seems likely we get the same lineup, especially given that no one looked overly exhausted after the Orlando game. If Kelley O’Hara were healthy, we would see her over Weber, but at present, this formula is working well and though Harvey loves to tinker, the team should be good for one more game before the break.